Nebraska: Platte River, Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse Mar 11—18, 2017

Posted by Rick Wright

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright, a native of southeast Nebraska, studied French, German, philosophy, and life sciences at the University of Nebraska, where he worked in the bird collections of...

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Even non-birders know about this thing called migration, but few of us—birders or not—are fortunate enough to experience the change of seasons in such drama and spectacle as can be witnessed in March on the Great Plains. This year’s tour managed to catch the very peak of the Sandhill Crane migration (a stroke of good luck not even the most foresightful leader can take credit for), and the large flocks of Western Meadowlarks, American Robins, and Snow and Cackling geese served to make the dynamism of bird movements as starkly, impressively visible as anywhere else in the world. 

The weather had something to do with it, of course, as it always does in this part of the country. March famously comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, and this year the difference was a full 70 degrees Fahrenheit, from 15° mornings in the east to an amazing 84° afternoon in the Sandhills that saw us shedding layers as fast as we could. Though most of our time together was under cloudy skies, we had snow only once, a light dusting on vehicles and the ground early in the tour, and the March rains that can spoil an otherwise exciting day in the field never arrived. Amid all the changes, the one constant was the wind, never strong enough to deter us, but brisk enough on both of our excursions for woodcock to depress their long-nosed activity, keeping them abuzz on the ground for most of the time.

Compensation was offered on both of those evenings, though, by the other birds of the huge oxbow lake known as Manawa. A couple of adult Franklin’s Gulls had pushed the season far ahead of their conspecifics, most of whom were still on the wintering grounds of Peru; one of the birds we saw, on our first evening together, was flushed bright pink beneath and on the neck, neatly setting off the dark back and black, white-goggled head. A good selection of waterfowl on our first visit included several dozen Canvasbacks, and on our return at the end of the week, we found that the first of the Red-breasted Mergansers had joined them. Most impressive of all were the Bald Eagles. Normally down to just the local nesters by mid-March, this year dozens were still present along the Missouri River, and to watch nearly fifty (!) fly from Manawa across the river to roost in Nebraska as the sun set in blood-red skies was to imagine for a moment that we had somehow returned to a past when the Missouri was still wild and the sprawling cities along its banks still native American villages and trading posts.

That first taste of waterfowl diversity would be followed in days to come by good studies of no fewer than 25 species of swans, ducks, and geese. Here too the advance of the season was apparent: Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers were still present in small numbers, but by the time our tour ended, the last of the usual migrants—Red-breasted Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks, and Blue-winged Teal—had begun to trickle in, and Trumpeter Swans had once again taken possession of their breeding sites in the Sandhills. One of the highlights of our time in Nebraska was certainly the opportunity for extremely close looks at such westerly species as Ross’s and Cackling geese, and I think we all learned something during our impromptu diving duck workshop in the great marshes of the western Sandhills. Still, for me at least, the enduring waterfowl memory of this spring will be the vast flocks of Snow Geese flying down the Platte and loafing on fields and sandpits between Kearney and Grand Island.

All of that pales against this year’s truly outstanding crane show. We watched the morning and the evening flights from three different locations—Fort Kearny, Gibbon, and Alda—and never tired of the sight, and above all the sound, of tens of thousands of cranes flying in to mass in the shallow water and flying out to feed on the corn stubble. Each flight was amazing, but the evening and morning shows at the famous Gibbon Bridge were among the largest I’d ever seen, with a large proportion of the 400,000+ birds known to be in the valley gathering before our eyes. No photograph can do this phenomenon justice, and no photograph is necessary to keep this image in our memory for a long time.

Rarely, a single Whooping Crane will find itself swept up in the northward movement of the Sandhill Cranes and appears on the Platte in March, three weeks or more before most of the wild flock of about 300 arrives in Nebraska in April. This year, a single adult came north with the mass of its gray cousins, and we had a wonderful early evening watching this bird southeast of Kearney, where it fed and danced on the fields, occasionally disappearing behind the edge of an irrigation ditch, then suddenly re-appearing to dazzle us with its bright white plumage. This was the second year in a row for our tour to encounter this most imposing of North America’s wading birds, and even should our run of good fortune continue, we will never get used to a sight this dramatic.

We tore ourselves away from the cranes and the river for two glorious days in the Sandhills, one of the wildest and most stirring landscapes on the continent, where we watched the solemn springtime rites of Greater Prairie-Chickens and the far less grave, slightly absurd spinning dance of the Sharp-tailed Grouse, two genuine must-sees for every birder. There is nothing like a prairie sunrise that reveals these birds on their leks, and it is a privilege each year to watch these scenes first enacted before humans even arrived on the plains. This year’s bonus sightings from our big yellow blinds included a fine adult Ferruginous Hawk, good numbers of Mule Deer, and the deafening carols of Western Meadowlarks from just outside the windows.

In between grouse performances, we explored a bit of the western Sandhills, discovering a furtive Townsend’s Solitaire—a first for this tour—in the Hyannis cemetery and a startling Lincoln’s Sparrow at Frye Lake, that latter species not known to winter anywhere in the Sandhills and nearly a month in advance of its expected arrival date. Two dashing Rough-legged Hawks and a handsome Harlan’s Hawk reminded us that winter was not over yet.

This March week on the prairies always passes quickly, the more so this year thanks to a congenial and enthusiastic group. Thanks to them for a great few days of birding, and to the birds for giving us so much to marvel at as winter once again gives way to spring on the Great Plains.